A top Democrat's indictment could be a game-changer for 2 troublesome allies seeking US fighter jets
- Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted on corruption-related charges in September.
- Menendez pleaded not guilty and temporarily stepped down as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Sen. Bob Menendez's indictment on corruption charges in September forced the New Jersey Democrat to step down temporarily from his powerful position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez has been accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, some of it paid in gold bars, from Egyptian intelligence in return for using his position to "approve or remove holds on foreign military financing and sales of military equipment to Egypt."
Menendez's post allowed him to exercise influence over US foreign policy, including arms sales. His removal could be a game-changer for Egypt and Turkey — two important but vexing US allies — when it comes to buying modern US-made fighter jets to upgrade their air forces.
Turkey's F-16 prospects
Menendez is a vocal critic of the Turkish government and has blocked Ankara's request for 40 new F-16s and 79 F-16 modernization kits. Almost immediately after Menendez stepped down, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted a potential upside.
"Menendez being out of the picture is an advantage." Erdogan told reporters on September 26. "There is benefit in turning this situation into an opportunity."
While Turkey is a NATO ally and hosts US forces, its relations with the US have soured over what the US sees as Ankara's democratic backsliding and coziness with Russia. Turkey's purchase of Russia's S-400 air-defense system prompted the US to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program and impose sanctions.
More recently, Erdogan's stalling of Sweden's application to join NATO drew criticism from the US. Erdogan has budged on that, but it's still unclear if Menendez's replacement, Sen. Ben Cardin, will give way on the F-16s.
Cardin welcomed Turkey's move to approve Sweden's membership. "It's clear that they had to get this done before we would consider arms sales," Cardin said on October 26, but he highlighted other issues with Turkey, including its "use of the weapons systems, the human-rights issues, and concerns that we have."
Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk-intelligence company RANE, said Turkey's chances of getting F-16s markedly increased after Menendez stepped down.
"That being said, there was already an American imperative to deliver those jets in exchange for Turkey's 'yes' vote" on Sweden's NATO accession, Bohl told Business Insider.
"Although we have seen a small indication from Cardin that he might also emphasize human rights, I tend to think the White House's focus on getting Turkey deeper into the Western camp will override that," Bohl said.
Egypt's decades-long F-15 bid
Egypt has repeatedly sought F-15s from the US since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Cairo hoped to reach a deal for the jets as early as 1980. Egypt now operates the world's fourth-largest F-16 fleet, but it has never gotten F-15s.
In March 2022, Gen. Frank McKenzie, then head of US Central Command, told lawmakers he thought there would soon be "good news" about an F-15 sale to Egypt, which had been "a long, hard slog." Menendez's indictment may be another setback, however.
Cardin is a critic of Egypt's government and has put a hold on nearly a quarter-billion dollars of the $1.215 billion in military aid for Egypt next year that the State Department approved in September.
"I intend to exercise fully the Committee's oversight responsibilities and my authorities to hold foreign military funds and the sale of arms to the government of Egypt, if it does not take concrete, meaningful, and sustainable steps to improve the human rights conditions in the country," Cardin said in October.
The accusations that Menendez took bribes from Egypt could further impede the sale.
"I think we are going to see a slow-moving investigation into how that deal came about and whether or not Senator Menendez did anything illegal or unethical in the course of it," Bohl said. "It could be a while before Egypt takes delivery of F-15s."
Cairo previously ordered the Su-35, Russia's equivalent of the F-15, in 2018 but backed out of the deal, undoubtedly due to the risk of US sanctions. It has ordered 54 French-made Rafale multirole jets in a bid to, at least partially, diversify its overwhelmingly American-made fighter arsenal.
It's unclear if Egypt will seek another fighter type instead of F-15s. China, which hopes to sell more of its military hardware to Middle Eastern countries, showcased its J-10C fighter at the Dubai Airshow this month.
Bohl doubted Cairo would want "to upset the United States by purchasing Chinese jets at this particular moment" and said it might "shop around fellow NATO countries like France" to "pressure the US to come through with the delivery."
Egypt is in "poor shape" financially, with little room in its military budget for other jets, and is "still pretty stuck" with the US as its main weapons supplier, Bohl said. But the lack of an imminent defense threat means Cairo can "slow walk its negotiations" for new armaments, allowing it take more creative approaches to its defense spending.
"Cheaper drones might be a way to thread the needle between the need for tactical aerial support and financial constraints," Bohl said. "In that case, I'd watch Turkey and even China."
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.
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